'It Gave Us A Sense Of Identity': Lovers Rock Stars On The Soft Reggae Soundtrack Of Small Axe
Lovers Rock, a part of the Small Axe anthology, which comprises of five original films by Academy Award, BAFTA and Golden Globe-winning filmmaker Steve McQueen, aired via BBC One on Sunday.
An ode to the romantic reggae genre Lovers Rock and to the youth who found freedom and love in its sound, it tells a fictional story of young love and music at a house party in 1980.
The episode was co-written by novelist and playwright, Courttia Newland (The Gospel According to Cane, Family Room) alongside McQueen.
Amarah-Jae St Aubyn makes her screen debut opposite the BAFTA 2020 Rising Star award recipient Micheal Ward.
Lovers Rock emerged in the mid-1970s, when the producers and owners of London’s sound systems began recording romantic ballads with teenagers warbling away renditions of soulful hits – in a soft, reggae style.
These anthems and many more provided a soundtrack for the house parties or “blues dances”.
Singer Paul Robinson, who goes by the stage name of Barry Boom, performed as part of a group called One Blood with his four older brothers. Like many of the vocalists of that time – he started out as a teenager, first appearing on record aged 13.
Born to Jamaican parents in Peckham, Boom explains that racist white UK nightclub venues did not welcome Black migrants at the time – so that generation would have parties at each other’s houses and it soon became a tradition that Boom’s generation would maintain for years after.
Indeed, as the McQueen production captures, the ritual of young love unfolded many a time at these events.
Young Black people would adorn their best clothes, pay a small admission fee, dance to romantic reggae songs, buy drinks, eat goat curry and rice and enjoy the sweet liberation of celebrating life and each other.
Against a backdrop of a hostile wider society and brewing political tensions, these parties were a cocoon of serenity, a melodic act of resistance which would go on to define British history.
Boom remembers the parties well.
“When you’d go to the house parties, the rooms were dark, the music is very sensual and very loving, romantic, it had mostly everybody in that zone. The energy was all about love – it was an amazing feeling,” he tells HuffPost UK.
The music would embrace you, hug you like a person; you could be by yourself and have a wonderful time in the dance. We need more of that nowadays.
“This created memories so when you go forward in time and you look back at that time with fond memories. The warmth, closeness of the room, the drinks and food: Special Brew, Thunder Bird, Baby Cham, curry goat with rice. The music playing, bass, those kind of things.
“The music would embrace you, hug you like a person; you could be by yourself and have a wonderful time in the dance. We need more of that nowadays, some of that old school essence in the music. Yes, we’re in a modern time but we need some of that realism.”
After Caught You in a Lie (1975) by Louisa Mark was widely hailed as the first lovers rock single, Janet Kay made history by becoming the first British born Black female reggae artist to have a number one song in the British pop charts with Silly Games (1979). The track, written and produced by Dennis Bovell, scored big in Europe too.
Quickly after, Kay became widely known as the Queen of Lovers Rock recording more hits, winning awards and landing a record deal.
“The music was made at a time when we were all teenagers, mid to late 1970s, and we sang about falling in love for the first time because that’s what was happening, meeting our partners, working,” Kay says.
“For us, it was an expression of how we were feeling at that time. That’s a part of our DNA as second generation Black people (born to Windrush migrants); when we go out and still perform those songs, it’s still in our DNA. The music is our creative expression.
“We didn’t have any Black radio shows to talk of back then. They weren’t playing any reggae music other than a couple of hours on a Sunday afternoon or Saturday night when Steve Bernard and Tony Williams presented shows. We listened to the regular stuff on radio that they played like pop, Motown, American R&B and soul. All of that mixed together made lovers rock.”
Over the years, a handful of independent films have explored, at least in part, lovers rock music and culture such as Burning an Illusion (1981) and The Story of Lovers Rock (2011) both by Menelik Shabbaz.
The 1980 cult classic Babylon, starring Aswad front-man Brinsley Forde, is a tale about young Black Londoners exploring the roots reggae scene and navigating systemic racism. There’s an iconic scene featuring of a party where lovers rock is playing and lovers are enwrapped in one another’s arms.
Kay points out while lovers rock is not new – it’s positive that more people are talking about it in the lead up to the Small Axe series.
“It’s as though, for some people, this is like a new phenomenon where it isn’t. But it’s good because the musical library is there for people to go and look up. This didn’t just start today – it’s been going on for donkey’s years,” she says.
“UK lovers rock holds a place in a lot of people’s hearts, it takes them somewhere. They relive times of their lives – happy and sad.”
Over the years, a star-studded roster of artists recorded popular cover versions of US soul ballads and some original standards too such as TT Ross, Cassandra and trio 15, 16, 17.
In a sense, the genre encompassed a womanist ethos: most of the singers were women who delivered powerful anthems about their personal experiences from within a male dominated industry.
Carroll Thompson first found fame with smash hit I’m So Sorry (1981) and a slew of hits followed including Simply In Love and Hopelessly in Love. The latter single was the title track of an album which sold over one million the same year – a unprecedented feat.
When asked whether she realised she’d go on to be a part of the history which is immortalised through music and TV portrayals of life at that time, Thompson laughs.
“No, no! That came much later,” she recalls. “All I knew was that I was a part of something that everybody was embracing. It was all very natural and authentic. I didn’t even believe that the album would still be relevant all these years later.
“At the time we were just young people making music that made us feel good. We were representing ourselves.”
Moving into the 1980s, artists like Peter Hunnigale, Sandra Cross, Lorna G, Kofi and John McLean recorded hits before the scene began to fizzle out in the early 1990s.
Digital, more hardcore styles of reggae music by Jamaican artists eclipsed the more mellow appeal of UK lovers rock across Black radio and in venues – while Britain’s mainstream music industry never quite accepted it to begin with.
“A lot of the DJs stopped playing it,” Carroll Thompson says. “They said it was too soft; the onslaught of fantastic music coming from Jamaica, dancehall and everything else, rendered the softness and soulfulness of UK lovers rock as kind of redundant. What were they meant to do? The blues is the blues,”
She adds that the mainstream industry didn’t embrace lovers rock because they never controlled it.
“It was controlled by independent Black record labels and the one or two songs that they put their might behind say Trevor Walters, Janet Kay, maybe Aswad later on and a few in between, were just one-off singles,” she says.
“Back in the day independent record labels didn’t get chart positions – you had to be a major company or a very big independent. That is why we were working in parallel to the mainstream music industry and that’s why we have never been recognised along soul, jazz, funk. We were not signed en masse.”
Carroll continues: “There’s a lineage, a trajectory, in terms of UK sound and the mother of that is lovers rock. It goes right through to Estelle and Corinne Bailey Rae, you can hear the influences in their sound. Sade called her album Lovers Rock; without lovers rock you wouldn’t have Soul II soul – the lead vocalist was a member of Brown Sugar: Carol Wheeler.
“There’s a distinctive UK sound and I think the industry needs to start acknowledging this so they can see the UK musical family tree.”
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This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.